Digital Forum Showcase Report: Epidat
Thomas Kollatz, Digital Academy, Mainz
Epidat, short for epigraphic database, is a research platform for Jewish funerary epigraphy. Currently, Epidat contains transcriptions, translations, descriptions, and iconographic documentation of 43,838 headstones (with 79,972 digital images) from 233 historical Jewish cemeteries, spanning a period of 900 years (1040-1952) and covering six European countries (Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Latvia and Czechia).
Headstones are a valuable source for Jewish history, religion, and culture. As a rule, each object is dated, because inscriptions always mention the date of death. In addition, the tombstone, which is preserved in a given cemetery, usually mentions the last place of residence of the deceased. Finally, the name of the deceased, the patronym and, in the case of married women, often also the name of the husband are given. In contrast to other historical sources, there is no ambiguity about the sex of the deceased. This characteristic of epigraphic data as well as their quantity allows the application of digital methods and procedures that facilitate the understanding of and access to the data.
Epidat offers research tools for analyzing and searching the ever-growing body of research data. One tool that can be used under different aspects is the Geo-Browser for the visualization of spatio-temporal relations provided by DARIAH (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities). Thus, all 37,943 dated personal data mentioned on epitaphs are visualized in the Geo-Browser. This allows genealogical queries, such as “Show me all mentions of the family name Rothschild” and displays the results on a map linked to a timeline, while providing information about the spatial and temporal distribution of the search query. Onomastic research questions can also be answered using this tool, such as the changing popularity of given names through time and space. The geo-browser for example reflects how the name ‘Kalonymos’, popular in the Middle Ages, declined in the early modern period against the short form ‘Kalman’, and then experienced a revival in the 19th century. This tool is also used to display the spatio-temporal distribution of symbols on gravestones as well as the inventory of books mentioned on headstones.
Numerous other access options are provided to the users: Full text search, search for a specific date (according to Julian, Gregorian, or Hebrew calendar), image indexes, word lists as CSV sorted alphabetically, by frequency, by gender (i.e. mentioned on a man’s or woman’s tombstone), among others.
The cemetery as a “cultural space” was the focus of a three-year interdisciplinary third-party funded project entitled “Relationen im Raum” (spatial relations). Here, the data collected on the individual headstone with regard to form and inscription, its date, and gender of the deceased, etc. were projected onto dynamic site maps. In this way, patterns of burial became visible, such as chronological burial, burial in family clusters, by function (rabbi), marital status (unmarried, child), manner of death (suicide, death in childbirth), etc.
Internally, the database offers web-based input forms for recording inscriptions, their annotation and formal description. This allows the asynchronous entering of data, and by several researchers simultaneously. A good example of this approach is the recording of the World Heritage Cemeteries Speyer, Worms, Mainz (Schum). In this long-term project, the inscriptions, their transcription, dating, translation and annotation were recorded by an epigraphic team at the Steinheim Institute, while the formal description of the objects was carried out by art historians and monument conservators of the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage Mainz.
All research data are made available under a Creative Commons license, which explicitly permits subsequent use by third parties. In addition, the research data are provided via open interfaces in machine-readable formats (EpiDoc: Epigraphic Documents in TEI XML). This has allowed the inclusion of epigraphic data in the Places of German-Jewish History web app, the use of epidat data sets for the workshop Methods and Tools for visualizing Digital Humanities data sets, or the extraction and visualization of family relations from the Hamburg Altona gravestone corpus, to name a few examples.
Based on the above-mentioned epigraphic format EpiDoc, various epigraphic repositories from the field of Jewish studies were merged in the so-called Peace Portal (Portal of Epigraphy, Archaeology, Conservation and Education on Jewish Funerary Culture, see showcase: PeacePortal).
Epidat has been continuously developed since 2002. It is hosted at the Salomon Ludwig Steinheim-Institute for German-Jewish History in Essen. Since March 2019 Epidat is jointly developed within a scientific cooperation between Steinheim-Institute and Academy of Sciences and Literature | Mainz.
Kollatz, Thomas. 2018. „EPIDAT. Research Platform for Jewish Epigraphy“. In Crossing Experiences in Digital Epigraphy. From Practice to Discipline. Digital Epigraphy, 231–39. Warsaw, Poland: De Gruyter open. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110607208.